This ephemeral life – a portrait of Msgr John Carde

John Carde is an inspirational preacher. A tall, angular figure with a resonant voice, he has a deceptively simple delivery as if he’s talking to the child in you. But…

John Carde is an inspirational preacher. A tall, angular figure with a resonant voice, he has a deceptively simple delivery as if he’s talking to the child in you. But he’s not. It’s wisdom with a generous smile, devoid of cliche. He’s a searcher himself, full of questions which he likes to share with you. Like his model Fr Joe Cullen, it’s all pretty real.

Life is a fleeting and ephemeral thing, says John Carde. He has always had a sense of this, even as a school boy at St Joseph’s College Masterton, where he was the first boarder.

‘They had great teachers there. Brother Adrian couldn’t really teach religion but he could kick goals from halfway, paint water colours, score centuries, put on The Pirates of Penzanceand teach Shakespeare. He was steeped in history and the classics.

‘This sense of the transience of human achievement became part of my life – I didn’t pick it up from religion class, but from the classics – from poetry and literature.’

This ephemeral life - a portrait of Msgr John Carde Archdiocese of Wellington A keen sportsman

A talented rugby player at school, young John was selected to captain rep teams and there were those who said he was destined for higher honours. But somehow, despite his youth, he could see that the All Black dream might quickly fade.

So, despite his interest in the girls at St Bride’s, demonstrated by his avid letter-writing – ‘the nuns used to intercept my letters and read them for their evening recreation’ – he went off to the seminary to explore a vocation. The influences on him were many, foremost his upbringing in a strongly Catholic family in Whanganui, but also the sermons of Fr Joe Cullen ‘who seemed so real to me and talked about real things’.

So he packed his bags for Mosgiel. ‘Even at 18 I recognised in myself rogue elements that needed to have some sort of boundary put on them. There was the power to self-destruct.’

Astonished by the goodness

Today in St Patrick’s, Paraparaumu, he leans on the pulpit and chats from jottings in an exercise book, drawing on stories from his week or quotes from the likes of the Times Literary Supplement. He knows when to pause, how to shock and how to make you laugh.

He knows how to build people up – their goodness astonishes him and so too their faithfulness, as they haul themselves out of bed on a Sunday. Every Sunday gathering is a kind of miracle.

And he knows how to disturb, too, how to prick the complacency, to help us rise above our lesser selves. What troubles him most is when he sees a loss of vision in people, when we are too busy or tired to see. When the first daffodil of spring is so blazingly yellow, ‘it hurts me to see the boredom.’

Catholicism, he says, is a rich lode to mine. ‘We have lots of appetites – for love, food, shelter, warmth and we also have an appetite for God.

‘Unless we give that God appetite a proper diet, we dine at spiritual McDonalds. We may have success in this world and riches but it is a waste of resources to lock up this God-designed heart and feed it with things so ephemeral and temporal.

‘The God taste buds are there, so we have a foretaste of the world to come. We are not totally unprepared. Catholicism, in its richness, offers a foretaste of that.’

Image of God?

‘I’m trying to get rid of images of God in my meditation because any image is only of my own construct. Images are such poor reflections. Instead I prefer to recite a mantra for half an hour every morning and night. I recite Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus) up and down the swimming pool.

‘I don’t think we need to say more prayers, but we do need to be more reflective. The whole world is a prayer – we need to pray the prayer of observation, seeing with fresh eyes the world around us, the changing colour of the leaves as autumn comes on.

‘I’m enjoying my priesthood more than ever because I’m observing things I’ve been looking at for years – at weddings, funerals, baptisms. No midwife says “just another baby” – no priest says “just another wedding”. The baby before me is the finest in the blue planet.’

A varied life

The priestly road has led everywhere – the Maori Mission on the East Coast, army chaplaincy in New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam, parish work in Stratford, Palmerston North, Nelson, Lower Hutt, Mt Victoria, Seatoun and now Paraparaumu.

Vietnam was a tough assignment, as has been dealing with the aftermath – the suicides, broken marriages and psychological problems common to the soldiers who returned home to hostility or indifference.

‘I did a lot of jungle time in Vietnam. I often wondered what I was doing out there but it paid off. I’m more a chaplain now to those who fought in Vietnam than I ever was then. They know that I know. Chaplaincy purges.’

On the eternal realities

‘I believe there’s a terminus ad quem. We’re going somewhere. I don’t get too much into the detail. I know that the chance of me was one in millions. Only God wanted me. Mum and Dad wanted a child but only God wanted me.

‘So I don’t waste time on heaven, hell and purgatory, because I’ll never know the answers. But I do know God’s love when I see it. Love is alive in people, in the community. That’s all you need to know.’

John Carde’s 50 years of priesthood have been a story about grace, trying to read the signs of its presence and live under its influence. What matters most to him is being open to the action of God’s grace in his life. The enduring question: ‘Am I an effective piece of plastic piping for God’s grace?’

This article was first published in NZ Catholic.

Image: Ron and Margaret Ingram with Msgr John Carde at their 50th wedding anniversary at St Joseph’s Church, Hawera, on June 13. Msgr Carde married Ron and Margaret on this date in 1959 and the three have kept in touch every since.